Saturday, November 18, 2017

Goodbye Christopher Robin


Wrestling with how to appreciate a work of art when the artist’s actions range from objectionable to abhorrent is nothing new, but in light of the number of sexual misconduct and assault allegations emerging in creative communities, such a question seems particularly worthy of consideration right now. Because 2017 seems to be the year of explaining why we can’t have nice things, along comes GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN to potentially ruin Winnie the Pooh. The author behind the beloved character didn’t do anything as horrid as what is dominating today’s entertainment news, but becoming aware of how he exploited his son in promoting the Pooh books introduces some acidity into the gentle mystique around them.

Years after serving during World War I, writer A.A. Milne (Domnhall Gleeson), who often goes by the nickname Blue, remains haunted by the experience. Blue wishes to get out of the city decides that he, his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their eight-year-old son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who they call Billy Moon, will move from London to the countryside. The new home in Sussex isn’t the cure-all for what ails him, though. Frustrated with his inability to work, Daphne leaves and vows not to return until he writes again.

Neither Blue nor Daphne are the most active parent, leaving the child care to the nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who Billy is attached to like a mother. When Olive needs to leave to care for her ill mother, Blue is left to watch over the boy for awhile. This time could have been yet another obstacle to his writing, but instead it inspires his most enduring work. Their walks in the woods and Billy’s play with stuffed animals, including a yellow teddy bear named Edward, generates a popular poem and then the Winnie the Pooh books. Daphne comes back home, and the works are massively successful. The public’s love for the books also prompts a keen interest in the real Christopher Robin. The Milnes eagerly involve Billy in the publicity cycle.

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN attempts to tell a rather acrid tale within a placid, storybook world. The prim and proper surface disguises the sourness of the material. It’s like taking a drink of what one thinks is light lemonade and discovering it is lemon concentrate. As directed by Simon Curtis, Gleeson and Robbie appear to be playing very loving and very emotionally distant parents. The actors aren’t at fault for the lack of consistency in which they interact with their screen son. Rather, Curtis seems to want to resist the truth as represented in the screenplay while achieving some measure of vindication on Billy’s behalf. Macdonald, playing a tender and concerned motherly stand-in, is the only one who comes across with any awareness of what is happening in this household.

It doesn’t help that GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN lacks a perspective. This isn’t Milne’s reckoning of his shortcomings as a father. Nor is the film viewed from Billy’s side as a kid or an 18-year-old who resents how the books affected his life. Curtis sands off the rough edges and tries to be sympathetic to father and son, but it simply isn’t credible in the way he tells is, especially the especially phony-seeming ending.

Whether Curtis deserves all the blame or if some can be attributed to Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan’s screenplay is difficult to know, but it is easy to see how GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have been much different in someone else’s hands. A hypothetical Terry Gilliam version might have played up the phantasmagoric fairy tale qualities of a child whose imagination is plundered for his father’s creative renewal and whose odyssey through the media circus denies his real self. Another director might have focused on how the trauma of war lingers long beyond the battlefield. Yet another might have zeroed in on the public’s weird fascination with child stars, made all the stranger here because Billy is the basis for a fictional book character. GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN could have rich thematic layers, but Curtis settles on a bland, psychologically confused way of exploring them.

Grade: C-

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